Can one person really make a difference in our government? I do not know for sure, however, I do know that at least trying has made a difference in my life. Raising awareness amongst our leaders about the HIV/AIDS Service Systems in our country has been a priority for me for some time.
The November election and January Inauguration of Barack H. Obama changed my perspective about politics. I was filled with the hope that our nation would be able to begin to turning around the decline that blossomed so fruitfully during the tenure of George Bush. I felt as if our country has come out of a very bad nightmare with George Bush and his cronies just robbing us blind and telling people anything but the truth with no remedy in sight. Even though we were going from one nightmare into another, with all the economic challenges George Bush left before us, it seemed as if ordinary people were awakened to the opportunity to bring about some of the much-needed changes in our government. Prior to President Obama’s election, I had felt that things were just going to keep running amok and there was nothing I could do to change any of the circumstances for myself or anyone else.
Those were the dynamics under which Barrack H. Obama was elected President. However, we all should remember that President Obama is just one person and it is going to take the effort of many people to make the needed changes. Thus, the continuance of my involvement in public policy issues began to take new directions. Today there lives in me a spirit of hope. Even though these are challenging times economically and not a lot of good things seem to be coming forth, I felt some sense of relief about our government being in hands of someone who will give people a chance to make it in spite of what is going on.
I realize President Barack H. Obama cannot do everything for everybody. The skeptical part of me kept reminding me that he is a politician and anything could happen. Maybe all the lobby and special interest groups that represent the bankers and other business organizations that do not think the people’s concerns are important would buy him off. Nevertheless, I knew I had to make an effort to fabricate a difference in the lives of other people like me living with HIV/AIDS.
I had previously been involved deeply in many HIV/AIDS and related policy issues, many times at a significant disadvantage to others affiliated or working for organizations. I have always felt that it was important to maintain independence while helping to make decisions about funding for local HIV/AIDS organizations. I had been appointed by the King County Executive twice to serve two terms on the Seattle – King County HIV/AIDS Planning Council, which distributed Ryan White and AIDS Omnibus funds to local organizations. In addition, I had always been an activist and advocate for other people living affected by HIV/AIDS.
I realize President Obama cannot do everything for everybody. Then, the skeptical part of me kept reminding me that he is a politician and anything could happen. Maybe all the lobby and special interest groups that represent the bankers and other business organizations that do not think the people’s concerns are important would buy him off. Nevertheless, I knew I had to do something to make a difference in the lives of other people like me living with HIV/AIDS.
In mid January, I began to get involved in the planning of AIDS Action and Lobby Day scheduled to take place February 18, 2009 down in Olympia with a renewed sense of the importance of doing whatever I can to make things better for people living with HIV/AIDS.
As I became more aware of the fiscal challenges our Governor and State Legislature faced, I saw the increased need for ordinary people to be involved in the development of budget priorities, particularly people living impacted by HIV/AIDS who are facing potential cuts to vital programs. When reality started setting in, the less optimistic I started to feel. The budget deficit at the state level was so enormous that I was almost sure if people did not do something many of the programs and services vital to the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS were sure to be axed. I wanted to do everything within my power to make sure that that did not happen.
On February 18, 2008 my Pastor – Rev. David Strong (Pastor of Sojourner Truth Ministries and Executive Director of AIDS Housing of Tacoma) and Deacon Paul Green (From Sojourner Truth Ministries, took a day off from work where he could be earning money to help him through some of the worst economic times seen in a very long time. I sincerely thank you Paul.) and a friend Dan Shaughnessy (Who drove me down and paid the total cost of gas for the trip, so that one more seat on the bus could be available to someone else), partially from my encouragement, came down to Olympia to make our voices heard. So did about 350 other people, representing 45 of Washington State’s 49 Legislative Districts. It is only through these kinds of efforts that change will take place. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The budget projections made by the Governor were made based upon a projected $5 billion deficit. When we got down to Olympia, new projections of an $8 - $10 billion deficit were expected to come out. Things looked worse than anyone had expected. Our group had three primary concerns: 1) to keep the HIV Early Intervention Program budget intact – a $3 million cut was proposed; 2) to preserve the $500,000 for Nutrition Services for 200+ low-income people living with HIV/AIDS in King, Kitsap, and Pierce Counties; and 3) the restoration of the $1.5 million cut in AIDS Omnibus Act funding. After talking with the Legislative Assistants from my District (The 36th District), it was clear that something different and significant would have to happen to get us through this fiscal crisis. After everyone finished with their Legislative meetings, we met for a Closing Ceremony. Senator Ed Murray, other Legislators, and dignitaries spoke and the tone was not optimistic. The statewide fiscal challenges we face have no easy remedy. The only constructive thing I really heard was that the Democratic Caucus could potentially introduce measures that will begin to bring in new revenues, meaning new taxes. When and if this happens, I encourage people to support this effort in whatever form it takes to help get us through this unique time of crisis. Again, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
These times call for us all to make some level of sacrifice. Additional revenues are needed to continue to support vital health and human service, educational, and environmental programs at even minimally acceptable levels. Without additional revenues, some of the choices that will have to be made will cost some people their lives. It could be you. I call for people to look beyond their own needs and to look at the needs of your other brothers and sisters. If you can say their lives are not worth saving then we are really in trouble.
In the meantime, I got the opportunity to go to Washington, DC where my daughter and some old friends live. I jumped at the chance. My thoughts turned to the work that was going on in the state; again, I felt the need to do whatever I could to make things better for people living with HIV/AIDS at the federal level. I really did not have a solid plan but I knew that I had to do a little bit more than what I had been doing before AIDS Acton Day. Given what was going on in the state I thought that our Congressional Delegation (Representative McDermott, Senator Cantwell, and Senator Murray) should hear about the “State of HIV/AIDS in Our State” directly from someone like me living with it. I started researching more about how ordinary citizens can influence the process in DC and decided to try to set up appointments with them. Eventually I did manage to get appointments. From there I really felt some a little panic. What did I have to say that was so important that our Congressional Delegation should take the time to hear me?
I started listening and talking to other people who worked (at real paid jobs) in HIV/AIDS organizations. Everybody was too busy to give my journey a lot of time. I talked briefly with David Richart the Executive Director at Lifelong AIDS Alliance at one of their Mama’s Lunch Events. He did not give me any encouragement or any pertinent suggestions. I emailed other organizations, POCAAN included, and never heard back from the majority of them. I understand the difficulties of the times and the multiple responsibilities of staff being asked to do more with less. Nevertheless, I expected that they would be more than willing to help someone, who wanted to help the cause, especially considering I was not asking for anything in return. Not one dime for travel, lodging, or time. Fortunately, Donald Chamberlain of Building Changes (formerly AIDS Housing of Washington) responded positively and agreed to brief me before my trip. I sincerely thank him for the help and encouragement. You see I have this stubborn bone in my body that just refuses to give up when I get determined to accomplish something. Not only did he sit and talk with me, he gave me briefing papers to give to the Delegation. We talked strategy and he assured me that telling my story from my unique personal perspective would have the greatest impact. For real, that is all I ever had, my own personal tales, when I first decided to undertake this journey. Armed with the truth of my experiences, I tripped off to see what difference I could make.
My intent while there was to tell the tale of how federal funding personally affects the lives of people living impacted by HIV/AIDS. I particularly wanted to talk about HIV/AIDS medications increasing longevity and housing or the lack of housing affects the ability to comply with rigid medical regimes. I did not go with any intent of influencing any specific piece of legislation. My purpose was to raise awareness.
Fortunately, I was able to schedule all of my meetings on the same day, Wednesday – March 4, 2009. I figured it was going to be a busy day. My first meeting was with Congressman Jim McDermott and Anne Grady, his Senior Legislative Assistant for Health Policy. I already knew he was friendly to HIV/AIDS issues so my nerves settled a little. Intent was to look as good as possible but my luggage had not yet arrived on the day of my meetings. (That is another story.) I had intended to wear a business suit. I felt a little out of place with almost everyone being suited up. Nevertheless, Congressman McDermott met with me and I felt that he gave me as much respect and consideration as any other lobbyist who might visit his office. In fact, he had the House Photographer come and take a picture of us together. I figured I would probably not get a copy of it so I also had the photographer take one with my camera. Surprisingly, he sent a portrait sized copy to me shortly after I returned home.
Our meeting went better than I expected. He listened intently to what I had to say and asked questions when he needed to. His manner was relaxed and friendly. He gave me more than enough time to tell him all the things I wanted to. All together, I spent about 15 – 20 minutes with him not feeling rushed.
My first topic of conversation was the current state of AIDS in our world, which borders on the criminal, given the fact that that lifesaving medication is not being made available to the majority of people who need them. I think it is of no coincidence that the majority of these people are African. Our overall response to HIV/AIDS has been too little, too late. When history books are written about this time, I do not think we will not be looked upon kindly, after letting so many of our brothers and sisters and others in far off lands die. Somebody who had much more sense than me said, that how we treat the least amongst us, reflects on how much we as a people have advanced. If this is true, I think we have digressed significantly. That is exactly what I said.
My next topic was the AIDS Prescription Drug programs. I talked about the need to fully fund this program so that no state ever has to put anyone on a waiting list. When ever someone has to wait to get life saving medications you are saying their life’s are not worth the cost. In Western society, this should never happen, but it has. I also showed him a list of the 31 different medications that I currently take along with what they would cost if I had to pay for them myself. In addition, I spoke about the challenges of going back to work at a living wage and asking a company to pick up the approximate $34,000 annual cost of medications. I shared my experience of looking for work, having good interviews, for positions I was qualified to do, and on at least two occasions having the employer’s decide they were not going to hire for the positions. I also recognized that HIV/AIDS are not the only health challenges we have in this country. So, I talked briefly about the state of healthcare in our country and the need to change the current patchwork system we have now. I told the story of sharing medications with my brother who at the time worked but had no healthcare or resources to get vital medications.
Prior to going to DC, I got an email request from the Family and Adult Service Center, a local shelter, to come in for an interview for an On Call Counselor position I had applied for through WorkSource. I let them know I was going to be out of town for about a month. They still scheduled the interview. The interview went very well and I left with the commitment that I was going to be recommended for hiring. A short while later I was informed that they decided they were not going to be hiring for the position. This was something that has happened before so it was not a big surprise. Anyway, during the course of my interview we talked about some of the types of people who use the shelters service. Not unexpectedly, I heard that a number of people in the shelter are people living with HI/AIDS. In the past, after hearing about people living in the streets of Seattle I raised hell with HI/AIDS Service Providers and made sure they were immediately appropriately placed in housing. I had an article published in the Seattle Times about one of these people. Now, it just seems as if people generally accept things that are morally and physically wrong about our priorities. I shared these experiences with him and also talked about some of my own personal challenges at maintaining housing. I especially talked about the oppressive nature perceived of some low-income housing providers by tenants and how they select only the people most likely to succeed in the environments they create within their buildings, leaving the most challenging to fall through the “safety net”.
Lastly, I gave him briefing papers on the Denver Principles Project; which is a manifesto of self-empowerment for people with HIV/AIDS and the briefing papers on housing issues that Donald Chamberlain gave me. I thanked him for taking the time to see me and indicated I would be following up as pertinent legislation came up.
When I came out of that meeting, I tried to rush over to the Senate Office building of Senator Patty Murray. Things were different, there were armed guards and dogs on the Capitol Grounds, and it was closed to anyone without appropriate identification. I did not know what was going on but I thought that maybe President Obama was coming to the Hill for a meeting. After walking around the Capitol Grounds, rather than through them, for my meeting with Senator Murray I found out that a Joint Session of Congress was underway and the Prime Minister of England was addressing it. Senator Murray was not available to met with me so I met with a Senior Staff Member Stephanie Burrows, PhD. Our conversation went pretty much the same as with Congressman McDermott. The same thing happened at Senator Cantwell’s Office, where I met with Mark Iozzi Senator Cantwell’s Legislative Aide for Health.
Overall, I think my experience in Washington, DC as a “Citizen Lobbyist” when very well. While I did not help to make or influence any specific legislation, I do think I raised the awareness with our Congressional Delegation the importance of HIV/AIDS issues in our state. In addition, I got the opportunity to see President Obama’s first proposed federal budget of $3.6 trillion come out during my third day in DC. It clearly indicated that a new set of issues would take precedence for our nation.
As I have become more empowered, my intent is to stay involved in helping to shape and develop public policy. My first issue will be to restore the voting rights of felons in this state. This disenfranchisement has caused many people to lose interest and concern about public policy issues, a large number of these people being people of color like me. Secondly, I see a need to change the Charter of the City of Seattle so that our representatives on the City Council will be elected from geographic districts rather than at large. I, like many other people, want to be able to know who has the established responsibility for things that go on in my neighborhood. Thirdly, I want to see another Mayor elected in this City who does not have an adversarial with the state and who can get the streets cleaned in a snowstorm. Harborview, which is the Regional Trauma Center, did not have bus access, for some time, and many people who needed to get there had no means of transportation or were trapped once they got there during the snowstorm. There is no excuse for an oversight like this, when all the streets around where the Mayor lived were cleared.
Economic conditions say to me that the days of people and organizations looking out for just their own territories have passed. We need leaders with vision who can build coalitions; who will collaborate with others outside their norm, who can support others, not like themselves and not always be in the lead position, but subordinate to other cultures and realities; and break down artificial barriers to make not just “right things” happen, but who can lead at making “good things” happen. This is where there is a void in “liberal Seattle”. Everyone seems to be all right with status quo. They go along to get along and try to stay off others turf to some extent. This needs to change. People now more than ever, need to be involved and engaged with leaders to help them better met the challenges of these times.
More later… Have peace.
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